OTTAWA — White-collar criminals who bilk their victims of more than $1 million will face at least two years in jail, under new legislation the federal government plans to introduce this week.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, flanked by representatives of victims groups, announced Tuesday he’ll table a bill to impose stiffer sentences on white-collar criminals, bar them for life from handling people’s money and possibly force them to pay their victims back.
He also indicated Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan is preparing measures to ensure white-collar criminals can’t win parole after serving just one-sixth of their sentences.
“We are committed to cracking down on white-collar crime and increasing justice for victims by providing tougher sentences for the criminals responsible,” Nicholson said.
Fraud “can be every bit as devastating as a physical assault.”
The minister has sought the spotlight on these measures, announcing his intentions for the bill several times recently, in interviews and news conferences.
But legal experts and victims alike immediately wondered whether the new legislation would be any more effective than the current regime.
“I don’t think it’s going to have a significant impact. It’s really a codification of existing principles,” said Eric Gottardi, a Vancouver criminal lawyer and part of the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice section.
“The reality is, it actually doesn’t change much in how the law operates right now.”
A fraud of more than $1 million already earns a criminal a two-year sentence in almost every case, he said. And the newly announced list of factors that judges need to take into account when sentencing fraudsters is already part of the process, he said.
The list includes paying attention to the financial and psychological impact of the fraud, whether the offender broke licensing rules and standards, and the complexity of the scheme involved.
Critics say the proposals are missing the point.
“It’s pathetic,” said Toronto-based forensic accountant Al Rosen. “The main issue is, no one is out there to chase those people in the first place.”
Ottawa has long been concerned about Canada’s global reputation for being lax on white-collar crime. And recently, high-profile cases of money managers accused of tricking investors out of their retirement savings have prompted a public outcry.
In Alberta last month, two men were charged in connection with a scam that police say robbed about 4,000 investors of up to $400 million.
In Quebec, Montreal investment dealer Earl Jones is facing fraud charges over a Ponzi scheme that led to the disappearance of millions in investors’ savings. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been pushing Ottawa to beef up its white-collar crime laws.
On Tuesday, Jones’s niece, Elaine Jones-McLean, was at Nicholson’s side as he announced the plans for legislation. She praised the move as a good first step that would bring some profile to the plight of victims of white-collar crime. But even she was not sure the bill would deter potential fraudsters.
“It’s one element to pursue. It’s like a lot of things in our society, it’s not just going to be addressed by just one means,” she said. “It’s one step. But it’s worth exploring.”
Nicholson said he had no proof that the bill would deter white-collar crime, but said the measures would lighten the blow on victims.
In order for a government to effectively deter white-collar criminals, it should support its legislation with enforcement and pressure on prosecutors and courts to be vigilant, said Jacob Frenkel, a white-collar crime specialist at U.S. law firm Shulman Rogers.
“Legislation is only a small piece of the puzzle,” he said.
In the United States, criminals face sentences of between 41 and 51 months for fraud over $1 million, he said, but the length of the sentence matters little unless convictions are forthcoming.